Can You Pass a Meteorology Exam?

By: Torrance Grey
Image: Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images

About This Quiz

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." This classic, dry joke is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, but was most likely said by another wit, Charles Dudley Warner. Whoever said it first wasn't entirely correct, though. Humans study the weather, and have done so for ages. Before you say, "How is that any better than just talking about it?" consider this: Meteorological study is the first step to predicting the weather, avoiding its harshest extremes and even harnessing it for human benefit. 

The list of people who have studied the weather is a veritable Who's Who of great minds. A short list of "not technically a meteorologist" folks who've contributed to our understanding of weather includes Aristotle (a philosopher), Sir Christopher Wren (an architect), Benjamin Franklin (a statesman), and Edmund Halley, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler (astronomers all). Maybe the weather fascinated them for the same reason it does us: because it's so awesomely visible and so much a part of our lives. You can't say the same for geology, hidden in the earth, or physics, which is often the interplay of invisible forces (like gravity). 

Are you secretly weather-obsessed? Or not-so-secretly? If so, we've got a quiz that'll let you show off what you know, and shore up the knowledge that's lacking. Come inside, fold up your umbrella and tackle our quiz now!

Probably the most familiar meteorological instrument, to most people, is the thermometer. What does it measure?

Of course, a thermometer measures temperature. You're probably as used to the medical type as the weather type. The name is derived from the Greek word "therme," which means, "related to heat."

Water falling from the sky, in any form, is called ______.

The forms of precipitation that you're most likely familiar with are rain and snow, but there are several others. The verb "precipitate" is a flexible one that can mean "to cause suddenly" or "to throw down," with the second one obviously being closer in meaning to the meteorological concept.

Does the science of meteorology have anything to do with actual meteors?

So what's the connection? It has to do with the Greek word "meteoron," which means "something high up in the air." Hence "meteorology," in which things high up in the atmosphere, like air currents, influence the weather close to the earth.

What is an important — maybe the most important — purpose of meteorology?

This is far and away the most common use of meteorology. Humans have sought to predict the weather from time immemorial, with references to forecasting appearing in the writings of Aristotle and the Christian gospels.

The boundary or leading edge of an air mass is called what?

Changes in weather occur when masses of air with different densities, temperatures and humidities meet. The leading edge of theses air masses are called "fronts," a term you've undoubtedly heard on many, many weather reports.

"Cirrus" and "cumulus" are types of what?

If there's one thing humans love to do, it's classify things. For that reason, there's a complex system of cloud classification, depending on a cloud's shape and its altitude in the atmosphere. There are a number of long, Latinate names for each cloud, sometimes a compound name — e.g. "cirrocumulus." It gets complicated fast.

Which of these cloud types takes its name from the Latin word for "heaped" or "tumbled"?

"Cumulus" is the Latin word in question. It's related to the word "accumulate," a verb that means "pile up or gather." Tall, fluffy clouds tend to look like this sort of accumulation -- think of a laundry pile -- hence the name.

Tall cumulus clouds are formed by what sort of atmosphere?

In general, cumulus clouds don't form in a calm atmosphere. But the higher and more fluffy the cloud, the more you'll know you're looking at something created by atmospheric turbulence.

In meteorology terms, what is a "thermal"?

We all learned in physics class that warm air rises. In the study of weather, "thermal" is the specific word for an updraft of heated air, rising from a warm spot on the earth below. A thermal is surrounded by cooler air, descending from the top. So it's part of its own cyclical system.

Which of these prefixes denotes the highest altitude of cloud?

Surprised? We know that the prefix "alto-" suggests height, but it's misleading here. Cirrus clouds are the highest ones, forming above 20,000 feet. The name "cirrus" doesn't have anything to do with height, but refers to their thin, spiky shapes. In other branches of science, "cirruses" are cilia or slender appendages.

When we say that clouds are classified by their height, what does this mean?

Whether a cloud is "cirro-" or "alto-" (or just "low") depends on how high above earth its bottom point, or base, is. This, in turn, is measured from sea level. This basic distinction is known as the cloud's "family": high, medium or low.

Wind speed is measured by ... ?

Did this word remind you of the simple sea creature, the anemone? It did us, too, so we looked into the relationship between the words. The Greek "anemos" means "wind," and "anemone" means "wind flower," presumably named for its movements in currents of water. Aww!

A destructive funnel cloud with high winds is called ...

Tornadoes are common in the American plains states and the Midwest. Tornado "chasers" were a subject of fascination in the 1990s, and some even had their own TV shows — but it helps if you remember that basic cable was expanding so fast back then that people would watch just about anything.

Which of these is a common location for a large-scale weather station?

As we've noted elsewhere in this quiz, weather observation is critical to a number of fields ... but few more than aviation. That's why so many airports have weather stations. Data on wind direction and speed, cloud cover and precipitation right at the airfield is key to safe takeoffs and landings.

A barometer measures which of these?

Interpreted correctly, barometers can predict changes in weather, or indicate altitude (because atmospheric pressure gets lower the further one travels from sea level). The word has been borrowed by journalists to mean, generally, "indicator" (e.g. "a cultural barometer").

Weather affects a great many professions. However, which of these would be least likely to need an accurate weather report?

Meteorology has a wide range of applications, in military and civil life. So, OK, a very science-minded cook might tell you about how atmospheric pressure and humidity affect sensitive dishes (souffles might be a candidate here). But compared to the other three, we're comfortable saying "chef" here.

A tornado, when it forms over water, is called a ______.

People often confuse "downspout" with "waterspout," but the first is a feature of a building — it's the pipe that carries water from a rain gutter to the ground. Not-so-fun fact: A waterspout might have been to blame for the abandonment of the Mary Celeste, the ship found adrift off the Azores in the 19th century.

The units that measure atmospheric pressure are called what?

The official units are "pascals," after Blaise Pascal, who was one of many scientists/philosophers/great thinkers who studied weather phenomenon. One "bar," an unofficial but frequently used measure, is equal to 100,000 pascals.

What does a hygrometer measure?

Don't be confused: A hygrometer measures the water content in the soil, or air, or an enclosed space. But that's not the same thing as rainfall. That's measured by an instrument we usually call a "rain gauge."

The formal name for a rain gauge is a what?

"Pluvia" is the Latin word for rain, which is reflected in both the Spanish "lluvia" and the French "pluvie." It's understandable if, when setting up your home weather station in the backyard, you just want to use "rain gauge."

Meteorology uses a lot of names and classifications. But which of these are essentially the same thing?

A cyclone is a type of storm, a spiral air mass that forms and travels over water, and breaks up once on large land masses. When a cyclone is the Atlantic or Northeast Pacific, it's a hurricane. When it forms in the Northwest Pacific, it's a typhoon.

Lightning can move in which of the following ways?

Lightning doesn't strike the ground as often as it stays within a single cloud. But we tend to think of lightning as cloud-to-ground, because it can be so destructive when it does move that way.

Which of these "body parts" does a hurricane have?

Yes, we're talking about the "eye of the hurricane," or the center spot in which the wind and rain abate, and things are deceptively calm. (We think a hurricane also appears to have "arms," but nobody asked us).

Which of these is NOT a form of precipitation?

Really, "graupel"? Yes, really. Borrowed from the German, it's a term that means "soft hail" or "snow hail," and happens when water droplets freeze on snowflakes. Weather phenomena really are varied and complex!

True or false: Because it forms virtually on the ground, mist is not considered a meteorological phenomenon.

Fog and mist are both weather patterns. Both are fine water particles in the air, and a number of factors cause them to form. So what's the difference between fog and mist? Fog forms over, or right next to a body of water. Mist is land-locked.

A "supercell" is the strongest form of which weather phenomenon?

Thunderstorms come in four types: single-cell, multi-cell-line, multi-cell-cluster and supercell. The last one is the strongest, and poses a serious threat not only to aviation, but to people and structures on the ground.

True or false: A cloud is always composed of water vapor, never ice crystals.

All cirrus clouds are, in fact, made of ice crystals. The cold temperatures at their altitude, 20,000 feet or above, necessitates it. This is also why their feathery, spiny structures might remind you of the opaque white formations seen inside ice cubes.

One of these is NOT a meterological measuring instrument. Which is it?

You could probably guess this one without knowing what all the other things do. After all, a "meter" is always something that measures. A lightning rod, while weather-related, protects buildings from lightning strikes by directing the current into the ground.

A simple anemometer (wind speed indicator) is a four-armed vane with what on the ends?

You could also describe a "cup anemometer" as a "dish anemometer," because the basic point is that one side is concave, to catch the wind. Therefore, you can easily see how hard the wind is blowing by how fast the vane is turning. Early ones (they go back centuries) were probably just visual indicators. Modern ones translate the movement of the vane into numerical data.

When getting dressed in the morning, in addition to knowing the temperature, it helps to know what?

Thermometers only measure the temperature of the air. But air in motion conducts heat away from exposed skin, making it functionally colder than the temperature would indicate. We love this effect in summertime, but in the winter, it's a drawback. It's important to cover nearly all exposed skin on very cold days when there's a significant wind chill in effect.

What does a "ceilometer" measure?

As the name suggests, a "ceilometer" measures the height of the cloud cover. Often, it uses a laser beam to do this. That's why a ceilometer is not included in the retail weather stations you can buy at high-end toy stores or home and garden shops.

What is the name of a modern, highly accurate form of weather radar?

Doppler radar is related to the well-known "Doppler effect" in physics, the one that explains why sirens sound higher-pitched when an emergency vehicle is approaching you and lower when past you. In Doppler radar, waves are bounced off moving objects in the atmosphere to provide information about their path and trajectory.

Which of these clouds commonly has the appearance of raked sand dunes, with blue sky showing through at regular intervals?

Altocumulus, sometimes referred to in reports as "Alpha Charlie" clouds, form in wide fields of alternating clouds and sky. The metaphors that people use for them are things like "sand dunes" or "patchwork quilt."

The scale for measuring the force of wind is called ...

Before Francis Beaufort, the observation of wind speed and force was fairly subjective. Beaufort created a ratings system based on agreed-upon phenomena that helped navigators and ship's captains communicate more clearly with each other.

What is the name for the regular periods of warm water temperature in the western Pacific, which affect rainfall and weather patterns?

The story goes that Latino fishermen gave the pattern the name "El Nino" after the Christ child (because the pattern was most noticeable around Christmas). El Nino alternates with "La Nina," a period of cooling water temperatures and milder weather.

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